A new study says children living near the Fukushima nuclear meltdown site have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer at a rate 20 to 50 times that of children elsewhere, a difference the authors contend undermines the government’s position that more cases have been discovered in the area only because of stringent monitoring.
Fukushima Children Suffer Thyroid Cancer 20-50x Normal Rate
“This is more than expected and emerging faster than expected,” lead author Toshihide Tsuda told The Associated Press. “This is 20 times to 50 times what would be normally expected.” Children are particularly susceptible because their thyroids are growing rapidly.
Residents of Fukushima prefecture in northeast Japan should be monitored in the same way as survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, say the researchers, who offer one of the most pessimistic assessments so far of the health implications of the world’s second worst nuclear disaster.
The new information is far from unexpected.
How Many Children In Fukushima Might Be Affected?
A screening program in 2012 found 36 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture had abnormal (though not necessarily cancerous) cysts or nodules in their thyroid glands. As of August 2013, 40 children were found to have actual thyroid and other cancers in Fukushima prefecture.
The new study was released online this week and is being published in the November issue of Epidemiology, produced by the Herndon, Virginia-based International Society for Environmental Epidemiology. The data comes from tests overseen by Fukushima Medical University. It is significant that the published version of this comes from a journal outside of Japan; the story seems to have received little play in Japanese mainstream media. Flagship NHK News, a quasi-government organization, does not appear to be covering it in any detail. The largest media outlet offering noteable coverage appears to be left-of-center Asahi news.
But Critics Say Little Reason for Concern
Image Source: Independentaustralian
Critics contend that no causal link has been established between the release of radiation and the cancers, leaving open the possibility of a statistical anomaly or an as yet unknown precipitator. A somewhat disingenuous report by Japan’s Institute of Radiological Sciences found some children living close to the plant were exposed to “lifetime” doses of radiation to their thyroid glands unrelated to the nuclear meltdown. Looking harder with routine check-ups, some say, leads to discovery of more tumors, inflating the tallies in a so-called “screening effect.”
David J. Brenner, professor of radiation biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center, took a different view. While he agreed individual estimates on radiation doses are needed, he said the higher thyroid cancer rate in Fukushima is “not due to screening. It’s real.”
Background On the Fukushima Disaster
Image Source: Financialtribune
The Fukushima nuclear disaster was caused by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. The earthquake caused electrical and equipment failures at the plant, cutting off cooling to the nuclear reactors.
Emergency backup diesel generators came on line, and operated until the tsunami destroyed the generators, due to their location in unhardened low-lying areas. This triggered the release of radioactive materials. Though classified as the largest nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, almost from the beginning Japanese and American authorities sought to downplay its danger.
For example, immediately after the 2011 disaster, the lead Japanese doctor brought in to Fukushima repeatedly ruled out the possibility of radiation-induced illnesses. A full five days after the meltdown, the American Embassy in Tokyo stated only that “we are recommending, as a precaution, that American citizens who live within 50 miles of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant evacuate the area or take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.” The Japanese government continued to hold to its earlier recommendation to evacuate only within 12 miles of the plant.
The Embassy characterized American citizens’ reaction in Japan simply as “people are calling with concerns, but I would call it just a concern at this point.” The embassy did however quietly authorize the departure of its own dependents six days after the accident.